Executive Function in Context: The Role of Stress and Vulnerability and Opportunities for Intervention. Stephanie M. Jones

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1 Ending Poverty: Integrating Behavioral and Social Sciences Executive Function in Context: The Role of Stress and Vulnerability and Opportunities for Intervention Stephanie M. Jones Harvard Graduate School of Education Jones, The 2014 Human Services Summit, 10/26/14

2 Outline Executive Function in Children and Adults What are they? Developmental patterns? EF in Context What influences the development and deployment of EFs? Strategies and Opportunities for Intervention What should/can be targeted? How? An example, SECURe for Parents and Children Implications Jones, The 2014 Human Services Summit, 10/26/14

3 Executive Functions are Cognitive processes located in the prefrontal cortex that coordinate and integrate the broader functions of thought, memory, emotions, and motor movement. Working Memory Core Brain Processes Attention Control Attention Shifting (Cog. Flex.) Response Inhibition Higher-Order Thinking, Purposeful, Goal-Directed Behavior (that is relevant to and the same for many domains, e.g., parenting, higher education, workforce participation)

4 In children typically defined as... The ability to hold a piece of information in mind and manipulate or update it over a short amount of time The ability to choose what to pay attention and what to ignore, and to maintain attention in a particular direction Working Memory Attention Control E.g., the ability to remember 2-3 simple steps or directions, in the face of minor distractions or interruptions E.g., can stay on task even when it gets difficult or child is tired; can concentrate on a project for sustained period of time, even when left alone The ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts, and to think about multiple concepts simultaneously The ability to inhibit responses/behaviors inappropriate to context or task demands Attention Shifting (Cog. Flex.) Response Inhibition E.g., shifts from one part of a problem to another; compares and contrasts ideas or perspectives; shifts from one task to another E.g., raises hand instead of shouting out answer; persists when task gets hard Jones, The 2014 Human Services Summit, 10/26/14

5 In adults often referred to as Identifying long-term goals and obstacles and solutions to reaching them, specifying sequence of steps, setting interim goals Controlling one s thoughts, feelings, behavior Planning Self-Control E.g., Making arrangements for child care, getting yourself ready for work while getting children up and ready for school E.g., not getting distracted from a goal, not getting angry, not making an impulsive decision Awareness of thoughts, feelings, behavior, performance, progress, others behavior, context and surroundings Monitoring E.g., What is working about this situation, is my behavior appropriate to this setting, what are her facial cues telling me? These embody many of the component skills in the slide above e.g., planning requires working memory, self-control employs attention control, shifting and response inhibition, and monitoring includes attention control, etc.

6 Processes/Skills are Inter-related In children the processes/skills develop and becoming increasingly coordinated over time. To leave the house in the a.m. Socks on before shoes (WM); leave the baseball cards on the counter (AS, RI); put lunch, snack, homework in backpack (WM, don t eat snack - RI); tie shoes (AC) all in the context of major distractions, time pressure, and... In adults the processes/skills are coordinated and inter-related. To leave the house in the a.m. Plan to come back (PL), remember house and car keys, etc. etc., monitor and manage all child activities above (SC) all in the context of major distractions, time pressure, and

7 A Model for Understanding EF in Behavior Regulatory Gestalt: over time, skills across domains are integrated into coherent system of regulatory functioning Each Regulatory Domain has specific knowledge, skills, and experiences/practice that support regulation in that domain. Executive Function: a foundation of core brain capacities and processes that support regulatory functioning across multiple domains and contexts. Jones & Bailey, 2012

8 Cognitive Regulation: Managing and modulating thoughts and attention. Setting Goals, Enacting Series Planning and Organizing Transitioning Jones & Bailey, 2012

9 Emotion Regulation: Managing and modulating internal feeling states (arousal, excitement, fear, anger, frustration, motivation, etc.) and related behaviors. Emotion Knowledge and Expression Emotion and Behavior Regulation Empathy and Perspective-Taking Jones & Bailey, 2012

10 Social Regulation: Managing and modulating thoughts, feelings, and actions in social/ interpersonal situations. Understanding Social Cues Conflict Resolution and Social Problem- Solving Prosocial and Cooperative Behavior Jones & Bailey, 2012

11 Academic Skills and Behaviors Regulation Gestalt: of Self and in Social Interaction Social- Emotional Skills, Behaviors, Interactions E.g., Moffitt et al. (2011, PNAS): Self-control measured with observer, parent, teacher, and self-report ratings during the first decade of life predicts income, savings behavior, financial security, occupational prestige, physical and mental health, substance use, and (lack of) criminal convictions. Work-related Skills and Behaviors

12 Developmental Patterns Children are not born with these skills they grow and improve, especially between the ages of 3-6 years. A second period of expansion, during transition to adulthood, work, and parenting. (Center on the Developing Child, 2011)

13 In the brain Prefrontal Cortex Decision or Control Center of the brain Planning, goal setting, inhibiting impulses Amygdala and sub-cortical limbic structures Arousal, fear, anxiety, motivation, aggression Response and reactivity regions of the brain Emotional circuitry (yellow) matures early. Neglect/abuse, extreme stress early in life can have long lasting effects on social-emotional functioning. EF circuitry (red) matures later (and again later). Risks and stress also influence its development. Strengthening EF skills could help manage challenges in other areas.

14 EF in Context: Poverty, Risk & Stress 1 in 5 children growing up in poverty have increased risk for social-emotional difficulty (Evans & English, 2002; Evans, 2004) Children who experience early adversity are more likely to exhibit challenges with executive functioning and selfregulation (Gunnar, 2000; Bos et al, 2009) The chronic fear, anxiety, and stress associated with unpredictable or chaotic environments can disrupt brain architecture, particularly those involved with executive function and emotion management Neural Development Toxic Stress & Neural Development (Center on the Developing Child, 2013)

15 It starts early Chronic exposure to poverty is associated with young children s difficulty with working memory, inhibitory control and attention deployment at 48 months. EF at 48 months EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING AMONG ACADEMICALLY VULNERABLE POPULATIONS Chronicity of Income Risk (15 to 48 Months) From: Raver, Blair & Willoughby (revision under review)

16 And is evident in middle childhood Neuro-cognitive differences between low and middle SES, ages years (Farah, et al, 2006)

17 Bottom line Low-income children and adults who face toxic levels of stress are at higher risk for behavioral and neurocognitive difficulties with executive function and self-regulation. The challenge in thinking about this all: It s not simply deficits it s that stress impedes the deployment of EFs and their related regulated behaviors. It is harder to use what you know, to plan and monitor, and to access your better judgment under conditions of trauma, stress and strain and this is true for everyone. The distance between reactivity, making an impulsive decision, etc. is shorter for those with a history of toxic stress, or who are experiencing it or other barriers (exhaustion, etc.) in the moment.

18 Opportunities for Intervention Executive functions and self-regulation skills are amenable to change. Strategies and approaches characteristic of effective interventions: o Short and targeted activities o Multiple opportunities to practice o Progressively more difficult/demanding o Supportive, encouraging environment o Embedded in social interactions and relationships o Role models, mentors and coaches are the best support o the skills are learned best via exposure, instruction, and practice, o and at its core is about noticing the moment and slowing down before doing something

19 An example approach: SECURe Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Understanding and Regulation in education A strategy for schools that is Child, teacher/staff, and family focused In schools is vertically aligned PreK-3rd horizontally implemented throughout school & in academic content grounded in supporting the development of executive function and regulatory skills Embedded in School Reform and Beyond

20 SECURe Components Children SECURe PreK-3 Parents School Adults Workshops & Technology

21 SECURe Conceptual Model

22 SECURe Approach Training Classroom Support Activities Lessons Routines Regulated Everyday Interactions Staff & Family Workshops Documentation & Data Use Structures What are the supports? What is implemented? What results? E.g., in schools activities: build core executive function and regulatory skills increase exposure to key academic concepts and content can be flexibly implemented in various settings (classrooms, hallways, gym, lunch, after-school, etc.) address adult capacity - can be modeled by adults and provide a scaffold for adults And are Frequent, short, targeted Physically engaging, contextually relevant Progressively more difficult and demanding over time Provide opportunities for positive feedback

23 Supports Wrap Around Implementation Training Lessons Classroom Support Activities Routines Staff & Family Workshops Documentation & Data Use Structures What are the supports? What is implemented?

24 What are the major components? An Integrated View What results?

25 SECURe Families: A 2Gen Approach Extending the evidence-based, child-focused program for Prek-3 (SECURe) Assumption is that executive function and selfregulation are key skills for both children and adults and are central to interactions Focuses on parenting as a common experience and motivating context for building adult skills that could transfer to other contexts Monthly workshops Oct-June, 2 hrs plus followup, facilitated by a mental health consultant Jones, The 2014 Human Services Summit, 10/26/14

26 Family Workshops Learn Reflect Family Workshops Plan Notice Try

27 Meeting families where they are

28 SECURe Families Goal To learn strategies that will help us parent confidently and calmly, and to connect with others What will we do? Meet monthly Build a toolbox of strategies that we can use when faced with stressful parenting situations Share experiences and learn from each other Reflect on how strategies are going and make plans for using strategies at home

29

30 SECURe Process Concepts PROXIMAL CHANGES CHANGES OVER TIME Parent and/or child use of strategies Changes in parent and/or child behavior and skill Changes in quality of interactions Metacognition Transfer of skill to other contexts Applied definitions in context of everyday parenting: we describe adult EF/SR skills such as planning, goal-setting, decision-making, and emotion control in specific interactions with children at home. 1. It s about making the skill CONCRETE in the context of real word things (specific behaviors or interactions that are practiced), and EXPLICIT as a skill in it s own right (meta-cognition, ah-ha, that s what that is ). 2. Practice and meta-cognition are the roots of transfer to other domains. Jones, The 2014 Human Services Summit, 10/26/14

31 Implications 1. We all face challenges with EFs, and related behaviors. 2. Consider what parents/teachers say are their biggest challenges provide support in places that are meaningful to them: Acute stress management Children s behavior Access to resources 3. Concrete supports (things to actually do at key moments), and a process whereby the skill itself is made explicit (=transferability).

32 END Thank you! For more information contact: Stephanie Jones Rebecca Bailey Jones, The 2014 Human Services Summit, 10/26/14

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